Pierre Poilievre, Conservative politician of Canada, at the Holodomor Memorial in Toronto, 2022 Pierre Poilievre, Conservative politician of Canada, at the Holodomor Memorial in Toronto, 2022. Source: Mykola Swarnyk - Wikicommons / shared under license CC BY-SA 3.0

Conservatives are now overtly using racism for electoral gain in many countries. John Clarke reports on a shocking example from Manitoba, Canada concerning indigenous rights

In an earlier article for Counterfire, I looked at the refusal of the Conservative government of Manitoba to pay for a search of a landfill site near Winnipeg where it is believed the bodies of two Indigenous women, Morgan Harris, and Marcedes Myran, were left by the man who murdered them. I characterised this decision, at the time, as an act of ‘racism and utter disrespect.’

Thankfully, I can now report that the Manitoba Tories went down to defeat in a provincial election held on 4 October and that they will be replaced by a government of the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). This will be led by Wab Kinew who is, fittingly, the first Indigenous person to ever hold the office of premier of Manitoba. We may now hope and even expect that recovering the bodies of the murdered women will be one very beneficial product of the election result.

The question of searching the landfill was tackled directly during the election campaign and in a fashion that was quite shocking. A few days before voters went to the polls, the Conservatives took out newspaper advertisements and put up billboards boasting of their refusal to locate the bodies. They urged their supporters to ‘stand firm against the unsafe $184 million landfill dig’.

Indigenous spokespersons reacted to this appalling gesture with shock and anger. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) had already called for Premier Heather Stefanson to resign over the landfill issue. When the ads went out, Chief Kyra Wilson of Long Plain First Nation noted that ‘They have a leader like that who thinks it’s okay to create division in Manitoba.’

Kyle Mason, an Indigenous advocate, commented that a ‘landfill, our garbage dump should not be anyone’s resting place, and these women, these sisters, need to come home.’ He also pointed out that ‘experts have said this can be done and it should be done. It is extremely unfortunate that it has become an election issue, but I hope Manitobans keep this in mind while they are voting.’

The Conservative tactic was described by political commentators as an attempt to bolster electoral fortunes with a ‘wedge issue’ that would appeal to the party base that was also an ‘attempt to try and claw back some votes.’ That is not untrue, as far as it goes, but the enormity of the tactic needs to be acknowledged. Manitoba’s governing party sought to win an election by generating a hateful backlash. They were prepared to run their campaign on racism and that is as politically significant as it is appalling.

Rightward trajectory

The Stefanson Conservatives employed their racist wedge issue in the midst of a Canada-wide political controversy over the landfill site. The Liberal federal government had already expressed some sympathy for a search for the bodies. Gary Anandasangaree, the federal minister for Crown-Indigenous relations, stated, at the end of September, that his government was considering supporting a search.

The Trudeau Liberals have themselves been under considerable pressure over the landfill issue. There had been an ‘International Day of Action to Search the Landfills’ organized by the families and supporters and Cambria Harris, Morgan Harris’ daughter, had walked out of a meeting with federal representatives when no firm commitment to a search was forthcoming. In this heated situation, the Manitoba Tories wanted to show their racist base that they were made of sterner stuff and that solidarity actions across the country or widespread revulsion at their conduct wouldn’t move them.

The readiness of the Conservatives in Manitoba to take such a hardline position has unfolded in the context of a rightward political course at the federal level. Pierre Poilievre became leader of the Conservative Party of Canada just over a year ago because he was ‘enthusiastically backed by the reactionary party base’. He easily defeated his more moderate opponents and is now charting a course that is very much in line with the approaches of right-wing populism.

Poilievre has his own history of playing the racist card in response to efforts by Indigenous people to challenge the injustices they face. In 2008, just hours before the Tory government he was part of would issue an apology for the abuses Indigenous children had faced under the infamous residential school system, Poilievre stated in a radio interview that Indigenous people ‘need to learn the value of hard work more than they need compensation for abuse suffered in residential schools.’

At the time, Poilievre’s vile comment was considered a step too far and he had to issue a perfunctory apology. Today, however, he leads the party and has little reason to be cautious since he is backed to the hilt by an adoring political base that is more than ready to help him push the boundaries of what can be tolerated within mainstream political discourse.

Both the Liberals and Tories in Canada uphold the state’s colonial relationship with Indigenous people but the latter are increasingly impatient with the polite fictions and progressive formulations the former try to maintain. Thus, in 2019, Justin Trudeau performed veritable political contortions over the report of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and its use of the term ‘genocide’.

Trudeau tried desperately to avoid accepting the genocide label but had finally to do so. Predictably, the Tories and their leader at that time, Andrew Scheer, took him to task for this, acknowledging that the vastly disproportionate violent deaths of Indigenous women and girls were tragic, but testily refuting claims that colonial dispossession in Canada had any genocidal elements to it. Four years later, Scheer appears quite restrained and diplomatic in comparison to the present Tory leadership.

Sign of the times

The electoral tactics of the Manitoba Tories are very much a sign of the times and of the development of mainstream conservatism internationally. In the US, Donald Trump and the right wing of the Republican Party have gone very far in making mainstream politics safe and secure for overt racism. Trump himself has been fully prepared to state bigoted views openly that were previously presented in more careful and coded terms.

In this context, it would be impermissible to overlook Suella Braverman’s antics at the Tory party conference, as a particularly clear-cut manifestation of the course that conservatism is on. Its significance lies, not so much in the shockingly hateful message that she delivered, but in how acceptable such expressions have become. Where Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech led to expulsion from the Shadow Cabinet, Braverman’s ‘Hurricane of Mass Migration’ performance is likely actually to advance her political fortunes.

We should also take stock of the fact that the present times are marked by weak and vacillating opposition in the face of the rightward course of conservatism. Rachel Reeves responded to Braverman’s audacious expressions of hatred quite pathetically, ‘failing to stand up for the rights of refugees. Instead, she criticised the Tories for not deporting refugees quickly enough, and gave no defence of the legal and social norms Braverman was threatening to trample over.’

The NDP in Manitoba, faced with an electoral opponent openly employing racism, was correspondingly anxious to avoid a fight. While the Conservatives brazenly unleashed the vilest sentiments, the NDP tried to avoid the issue. As CBC News put it rather well, the ‘other leading party, led by a man poised to potentially become the only First Nations premier in Manitoba history as of tomorrow, has chosen to tiptoe to some extent around Indigenous concerns, lest its leader and his party be deemed too invested in First Nations voters’ needs in the minds of the rest of the electorate.’

Clearly, the threat from the right is very serious and it won’t be contained by those who put their timid electoral calculations ahead of political principle and active solidarity. The movements and struggles that will be needed against the right won’t adapt to its agenda or retreat before it, but will rather work clearly and openly to defeat it.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

Tagged under: